July 28th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Land Mines: Choose Your Problem

One of the wisest rules my late father taught me was this. "You don't get to choose to have a problem-free life. But if you're very careful, sometimes you get to choose which problems you have."

The ongoing debate over the future of land mines is fresh in my mind because, just before King Features Syndicate stopped offering free (2 week out of date) access to their cartoons online, I was reading a series in Funky Winkerbean about a US/Afghan War vet with PTSD who chooses to return to Afghanistan with his new bride to volunteer for a mine-removal charity. I had occasion to explain the politics and realities of this to someone in conversation the other day, too. Here are the few things that, it seems to me, you absolutely need to know about this subject.

A land mine is what US military science calls a "force multiplier." What that means is that it lets a small force of troops control the same amount of ground as a much larger force of troops. The most common example given is an air strip near enemy lines. To keep the enemy from sneaking up on that air strip and sabotaging it or attacking incoming and outgoing aircraft, you would need to station sentries in an almost continuous line around that airstrip, a continuous line many miles long. Or, you can spread dirt-cheap land mines everywhere around the air strip except for one narrow access road or path. Then you only have to guard that one access road, with occasional roving patrols around the inner edge of the mine field looking for evidence of people trying to sneak slowly through the mine field. The lowest estimate I've heard is that a mine field has an average force multiplier effect of 10, that is to say, to patrol the same chunk of ground without land mines will take ten times as many people as doing it with land mines.

The catch is that if you understand the basic philosophical principle of the Geneva Conventions, the evolving rules that have governed warfare ever since the bloodbath of World War I, there is no way that land mines should be legal as a weapon of war. The rules of war require that weapons primarily target soldiers. Since soldiers know that an area is probably mined, they avoid it, or bring in combat engineers to slowly work their way through the mine field. No, the overwhelming majority of the casualties of land mines are civilians who have to live in the area long after the war is over. And don't say that they should live elsewhere until someone volunteers to clear the mine field, because mines are cheap and effective. Which means that at the rate that mine fields are spreading, pretty soon there won't be any rural land anywhere in the developing world that isn't mined, and it's already almost that bad in places with long-going civil wars past or present like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Vietnam. Further, the rules of war require that weapons be designed, at least in theory, to kill rather than to maim, but land mines kill far, far fewer people than they maim. So by the guiding principles of the international rules of war, the use of land mines ought to be considered a war crime.

On the other hand, the USA came out of World War II with one of the world's two largest militaries, and with the world's only surviving intact economy, so it fell to us in place after place around the world to make security guarantees, to attempt to prevent or stop wars and civil wars. I think that that was a bad idea on our part, an expense that no other world economy has to bear and that puts our workers at a tremendous economic disadvantage. But regardless of what I think, those commitments were made. That means that the rest of the world has factored them in to the security equation. If we were to withdraw unilaterally from every security commitment we've made, from Latin America to the Middle East, from the Balkans to east Asia, it would mean turmoil. Wars would break out in all kinds of places where the threat of US intervention is all that's stopping the larger or more heavily armed nation or ethnic group from slaughtering the smaller one.

So, we as a nation have three choices. We can give up land mines, and give up on 90% or more of our security commitments, and watch genocidal wars break out in places like Israel and South Korea. Or we can give up land mines, and increase the size of our military ten-fold, to World War II level percentages of the population, indefinitely. Or we can be the lone holdout among the major world powers on the anti-minefield treaties, the one that gives the rest of the world the moral cover to keep spreading minefields throughout the farms and forests of the developing world.

I personally would choose the first of those three options. As we just showed Afghanistan a few years ago, if another country actually comes over here and screws with us, we don't even need The Bomb to fix their little red wagon -- and if it comes to that we do, in fact, have The Bomb. As far as I'm concerned, it's no skin off of my nose if the North Koreans slaughter all of South Korea and impose the harshest Marxist rule on the planet; if anything, history shows that without the excuse of being able to blame us for their economic problems, Communism will probably fall faster in a forcibly united Korea. Nor do I really give a rat's hindquarters who rules the Middle East; in today's economy, whoever it is will still have to sell the oil. And when it comes to strangers, no, I really don't care how many of them die; if they don't want to die, they should save themselves. (Someone once accused me of acting as if human life were cheap. I was feeling cynical at the time, even by my standards, so I responded, "I hadn't noticed that there was a shortage.")

On the other hand, as someone who is above all else a pragmatist, or as I put it, someone who worships at The Church of Whatever Works, I can fully understand large numbers of Americans not being willing to pay that price. And who's to say that more civilians in the developing world wouldn't be killed and maimed in the wars that broke out after it became obvious that a US military deprived of land mines as a weapon was no longer capable of honoring its security guarantees?
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